After walking through the streets of Old Manila in a pair of worn-out tsinelas, it becomes clear why tourists call the Philippines the “Melting Pot” of Southeast Asia. From the intricately crafted arches of Binondo’s Chinatown to the Spanish war-time forts at Intramuros and the century-old churches of Quiapo, it seems that Filipino culture is a strange yet endearing mélange of people and history. But sometimes, the richness of this country’s background is both a blessing and a curse.
As the years progress, it has become more and more difficult for individuals to identify what it means to be a true Filipino. This identity crisis has roots in centuries past: are we age-old descendants of early Malays or a modern-day generation of Indos? Are we children of the 300-year Spanish legacy or the Americanized brown brothers of colonial United States? Could we even be the frustrated products of three years of harsh Japanese rule? Evidently, a Filipino cannot be so easily described.
With 7,107 islands, no fewer than 120 local dialects, and 80 provinces, it’s no wonder why our national identity is so difficult to characterize. The mix of colors, personalities and beliefs just within our own nation has caused many individuals to be regarded as “second-class Filipinos”. The talk goes: is there room left for a full-blooded Pinoy when Chinoys (Chinese Pinoys), Spanoys (Spanish Pinoys) and Fil-Ams (Filipino Americans) run freely throughout the country? We search so furiously for someone who is Filipino through and through that instead of brothers and sisters, we have begun to view each other as strangers, each with a separate race. Amidst the differing tastes, languages and customs of Ilokanos, Cebuanos and Davaoeños, the sense of a collective “Filipino” is lost.
As a result, many Filipinos have lost sight of what it means to be a member of this country. Confused and overwhelmed, we are left to answer to the mischaracterizations and stereotypes placed upon us by the outside world, without even knowing who we ourselves are. Contrary to what many imagine, Filipinos are not all farmers or fishermen. We don’t all live in Nipa huts made of straw and bamboo in the middle of wide provincial rice paddies, and only some of us own pet carabaos. Not all of us speak English with a distinctly rural drawl, and not everyone is deeply religious. Only few of us aspire to be nurses or caretakers, even fewer, if they had the choice, would opt to become Overseas Filipino Workers (OFWs).
Such narrow views lead to exclusivity and discrimination. Even amongst ourselves, we have chosen to perpetuate these stereotypes. We have erected walls that shun certain social groups and have refused to give them credibility as Filipino citizens. Bajaus, a group of nomadic sea-dwellers, are neglected by fellow Filipinos for these same reasons. And yet, the term “Filipino” itself should not and does not discriminate. It encompasses the rich and the poor, the weak and the powerful, those in the provinces and those in the cities. Filipinos create singularity through difference and togetherness through individuality. The Filipino society is one that is able to accept people from all walks of life, all beliefs and aspirations, and still treat each one as part of the collective family.
What we soon come to realize is that, at the heart of all the misled assumptions and generalizations, what sets Filipinos aside is character. Whether it’s endless hospitality, persistence in the face of hardship, or unconditional love for one’s family, the unrelenting heart of the Filipino always prevails. It is this character that unites Filipinos who would otherwise be worlds apart – the ambition of the businessman building his empire and the young child wanting to finish elementary school; the diligence of a farmer in the fields and a nurse working abroad; the love of a senator for his country and of a Yaya for the children she cares for.
As a nation, all of us share a history and a future. Hundreds of thousands of Filipinos have soiled and wounded their feet on their individual paths, but we all walk on the same land. Many have brought us to where we are today – the thousands who fought for victory under the Spanish occupation, the thousands more who suffered in the Bataan Death March, and the millions who rallied for democracy during People Power One and Two.
To be a Filipino is to acknowledge that our race and culture is a product of centuries filled with trade, colonialism, and the fight for independence. Whether young or old, Ilokano or Cebuano, Aeta or Bajau, a true Filipino would recognize this and love his country with all his heart.